George Edmund Street was one of the foremost Victorian architects who specialised in the ‘Gothic’ style. Perhaps best known for the Royal Courts of Justice, Street was also a prolific designer and builder of churches all over the country.
He carried out three major projects in the Dulwich area, St Paul’s Herne Hill, built on the extremity of the Estate, St Luke’s West Norwood, and an ornate mausoleum in West Norwood Cemetery.
St Paul’s Herne Hill, listed Grade II*, was originally completed in 1844 in the ‘Early English’ style to the designs of George Alexander. Following a major fire in February 1858 only the tower, spire and outer walls remained. Fortunately it was insured, and the vicar, Rev Matthew Anderson, employed Street to rebuild it. The contractor, Holland and Hannen, completed the work by October that year. John Ruskin, who lived nearby in Denmark Hill, called the new church ‘one of the loveliest in the country and one that makes the fire a matter of rejoicing’. Only two of the original stained glass windows by Hardman remained after a near miss by a V1 in 1944.
St Luke's, West Norwood stands on a triangular site at the south end of Norwood Road where it joins Knights Hill and Norwood High Street. Listed Grade II, and originally designed by Charles Bedford in 1822-25, the church was at first endowed with box pews, galleries and a triple-decker pulpit, and could seat a total congregation of about 1,800. Between 1870-1872 it was extensively re-ordered by Street who dramatically rearranged the interior including the removal of the galleries.
The mausoleum at West Norwood Cemetery, a two-storeyed polychromatic design, was designed for the successful Greek merchant John Peter (Zannis) Ralli. It is listed Grade II*. The five Ralli Brothers ran one of the largest Greek trading companies of the Victorian era. John had started trading in oriental silk and Russian grain in the 1820s, and the brothers were quick to seize new opportunities created by wars, political events, and the opening of new markets. By the 1840s they owned major trading operations across the Mediterranean, the Levant and Russia. They supplied grain to the British and French armies during the Crimean War and were early traders in grain futures. At its peak the firm employed more than 40,000 people and expanded to the USA and India. In later years they were the suppliers of Jute for sand bags to the British Army in WW1.
G E Street was born at Woodford in Essex, the third son of a solicitor. He went to school in Mitcham and later to the Camberwell Collegiate school, leaving in 1839. He worked for a very short period for his father but, on the latter’s death, his mother helped him to secure a position in an architect’s office, first with Owen Carter in Winchester, and afterwards as an improver (draughtsman) in Sir George Gilbert Scott’s office in London which deepened his interest in Gothic architecture.
He left after five years to set up on his own, his first commission being Biscovey Church in Cornwall. He was an excellent draughtsman and in 1855 he published an illustrated work on ‘The Brick and Marble Architecture of Northern Italy’. He followed this up ten years later with a book on ‘The Gothic Architecture of Spain’. All the drawings in both books were his alone.
Street was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1866, and a fellow in 1871. At the time of his death he was also Professor of Architecture there. He was president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, a member of the Royal Academy of Vienna and in 1878, in recognition of the quality of his drawings sent to the Paris Exhibition, he was made a knight of the Legion of Honour. He was twice married.
The architect's death, on 18 December 1881, was allegedly hastened by overwork and professional worries connected with the erection of the Law Courts. He was buried on 29th December in the nave of Westminster Abbey.
At the end of last year, Manchester City Council fixed a new plaque on the Free Trade Hall, now a hotel, to commemorate the infamous Peterloo massacre of 1819. The previous plaque merely noted that the crowd had been dispersed by the military. The new plaque records more fully what happened and gives the death toll estimated from the latest research. It reads:
On August 16 1819 a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries.
The connection with Dulwich is in the person of Thomas Scholes Withington who played a significant part in the tragic events and later, between about 1832 and his death in 1838, lived at Bell House, College Road. In 1816 he had been elected as a constable for the manor of Manchester, and in October 1817 he was elected Borough Reeve, the chief officer of the town and equivalent to the mayor elsewhere, a post he held for a year. At the time of the massacre, he was the horseman who took the request from the chairman of magistrates to the commander of the local cavalry for assistance in keeping the peace.
The magistrates were concerned about the large crowd that had gathered to hear Henry Hunt speak in St. Peter’s Fields and decided to arrest the speaker and break up the meeting. The local volunteer forces of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were also called upon to help disperse the crowd, and all the military groups made the fatal mistake of charging from three different directions leaving the crowd nowhere to escape, with the inevitable casualties. Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt was the best known radical of the period who argued for constitutional reforms including universal (manhood) suffrage and annual parliaments and used public meetings to rally support. Although he insisted on peaceful protest and no incitement to riot, he was found guilty of seditious assembly and sentenced to 2_ years imprisonment.
According to Violet Horton, one of his descendants, Thomas Withington was offered but refused a knighthood. However he accepted a silver cup, which passed to his son, Arthur, who emigrated to America. He was also known as “Three Bottle Reeve” from his ability to drink that amount every evening, but it has not been possible to corroborate these stories. In 1821, he married Elizabeth Harding the daughter of a wealthy silk mercer from Derbyshire, and their first four children were born in Everton, near Liverpool. Their next two children were born in Grasmere in Westmorland and their youngest daughter was born in Dulwich in 1834.
By then, the family appears to have joined Elizabeth’s father Anthony Harding in Bell House. He had carried on his business at 82 Pall Mall and secured a royal warrant as “silk mercer by appointment” to Queen Victoria but was about sixty when he took his first lease on the property in 1832. Elizabeth was certainly there by 1833, because a neighbour, Joseph Romilly, records in his diary for 2 April, “ Called with Lucy [his sister] on Mrs. Withington at Bell Housexcivilly received”.
Thomas died young in 1838 aged 47 (did he drink too much?) before his father-in- law who was 89 when he died in 1851. It was a large household at the time of the 1841 census with six female servants, a man servant, the children’s governess, the coachman with wife and child and two others who were perhaps just visiting at the time. His wife survived until 1853, having seen one of her daughters married to the Reverend Stephen Poyntz Denning (son of the Curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery). The lease was surrendered by her executors in 1857 ending the connection with the family.
On the Street Where You Live - Gilkes Crescent by Ian McInnes
Initial thoughts on the development of the future Gilkes Crescent began as early as February 1912 when Mr Gale Branson, one of the local house builders, then working in Druce Road, proposed to develop a small site at the rear of St Barnabas Hall. Following objections from the vicar, the Rev Howard Nixon, who wanted the land to be used for a hall extension, the Governors took the opportunity to review the development potential of all the adjacent land, specifically the large gardens behind the three big houses next to St Barnabas Hall fronting Dulwich High Street - Lake House, Fairfield and The Hall. C E Barry, the Estate Surveyor, presented two development options. Scheme A showed a new road generally on the lines of Gilkes Crescent as it is today while Scheme B showed a shorter road exiting on to Dulwich High Street through what is now the C of E school. The plan was put to one side as the three houses and their grounds were all fully let and the Governors sold the land immediately next to and behind the church hall to a Mr Room in 1913.
Of the three larger houses, Fairfield, the centre house, had both the biggest site and was in the worst condition – exacerbated no doubt by the fact that its lessee, Mr Harvey, had died a few years before. Mr Barry initially reported on its poor condition in May 1917, following a request from the lessee’s widow for financial assistance in putting things right. The Governors refused to help and required her to observe the full repairing covenants of the original 1902 lease.
In July 1917 the Governors received an offer from a Mr Almeric Padget, the MP for Cambridge, to take over Fairfield as a children’s ‘Convalescent Home for the poor’ with ‘twenty to forty beds for in-patients and an out-patients department for children for treatment by massage and electricity, and the home would be registered under the Board of Education. The cases are to be orthopaedic. No tubercular cases to be admitted unless the disease has been completely arrested.’ The Governors declined.
Late in 1919 Mrs Harvey confirmed that she would not be renewing Fairfield’s lease and asked for a schedule of dilapidations to be prepared. Mr Barry reported in January 1920 ‘there are serious structural defects, partly to the exterior and partly to the interior of the house. As regards the former much of the stucco has fallen away on all four sides of the building…. The roof and gutters are also imperfect….. As to the interior of the building, the chief defect is the presence of dry rot in several places and another serious matter is the falling down of the ceiling in the cloak room which has disclosed the fact the joists of the roof above are in a decayed state…speaking generally, this house is in a bad state, and my approximate estimate of the cost of making good the dilapidations is £650.’ There was no way Mrs Harvey could afford that kind of figure and she sublet the property to a Captain and Mrs Heath-Walker, to take over the last two years of the lease with a view to carrying out a refurbishment and agreeing a lease extension.
Luckily for the Governors the lease problems on Fairfield occurred just at the time when there was considerable development pressure in Dulwich - and they took the opportunity to implement the 1912 scheme, separating Fairfield from its large grounds and also securing a large part of the garden of the Hall fronting East Dulwich Grove. The 3_ acres of land resulting was inspected at the Governors’ Annual Review in July 1922 and the Estate received their first offer on the land very shortly afterwards from Messrs Martin & Co at 5s per foot ‘for the whole of the frontages amounting to about 920 feet (the corner plots not being calculated) at £230 per annum, the first year at a peppercorn, and the second year at half rent, for the erection of houses to the value of £950 to £1150; the road and sewer to be made by the Governors.’ Mr Barry estimated that the road and sewer would cost about £2250 and the Manger reported that ‘The Prudential Assurance Company would make a loan of £2500 at 5_%, repayable over a period of 30 years by instalments of £171 per annum.’ The Governors turned down the offer and instructed the Manager to obtain offers from builders who would undertake the installation of the road and sewer as well.
The next offer was from John Laing & Son Ltd at 5s a foot (to include the sewer and road) and this was followed by a counter offer from local builder Mr A A Wilmot at 3s a foot for the new road and 7s per foot in East Dulwich Grove. The Governors went for John Laing and Son initially, the Surveyor reporting ‘The terms of the offer seem to me to be very favourable when the cost of the new road and sewer, to be made by the lessee, is taken into consideration. The designs submitted for the houses are seven in number, and all are cleverly treated, both as regards plan and elevation.’
However, shortly afterwards, they fell out. The Manager reported ‘Messrs J Laing & Son, when they made the offer last July for the land behind Fairfield at the same time made a separate offer for two plots in Elms Road (now incorporated into Gilkes Crescent), which were already let on 21 year leases to Mr Room and the Parish Hall Committee. They now complain that they will have to bear the cost of making up the road for about 70 feet adjoining these plots, for which they will reap no benefit, and therefore should receive some compensation.’ The Manager tried to negotiate, but without success, and Laings pulled out.
In December 1922 the Surveyor reported that the London County Council had referred the suggested name of the new road, Gilkes Road (after Gilkes, a recent headmaster at Dulwich College), to Camberwell Borough Council and that the Town Clerk had written stating that the General Purposes Committee did not think the name desirable. He asked the Governors to suggest a more ‘euphonious one’ and they responded with Gilkes Avenue and then Gilkes Crescent.
By January 1923 the Governors were inundated with offers from other local builders - from W L Cook & Co ‘who are building in Burbage Road’, Mr Wilmot, Mr Branson and Messrs Mitchell and Son. After reviewing a ‘tabulated summary of offers received’ they chose W L Cook and ‘Resolved and ordered that a building agreement be entered into……..for the erection of five houses, costing £1500 to £1750 each, with frontages to East Dulwich Grove, and 36 houses, costing £1399 to £1400 each, with frontages to Gilkes Avenue.’
In March 1923 the Surveyor was commenting on designs of the first houses to be built in East Dulwich Grove and in June 1923 he approved the proposed houses in Gilkes Crescent. There were to be four types initially.
The Dulwich Estate Office still has the original colour washed drawings. The houses themselves are conventional 1920s types, mainly semi-detached, although the builder amended the overall plan in one or two areas to build two detached houses. One interesting point is the smallest bedroom – probably intended as the maid’s room, never has a fireplace where all the others do. Most of the houses have now been extended either sideways, to the rear, or up into the roof.
W L Cook’s architects were a firm called Murrell & Piggott. Both partners had worked for John Belcher (who lived on Champion Hill) and Arthur Beresford Pite’s office at different times and Murrell lived in Thurlow Park Road. Their best known works are the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Bolsover Street, the Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, the RNO Hospital, Brockley Hall and blocks of flats at Dorchester Court, Sloane Street, and Malvern Court, South Kensington.
Work progressed rapidly. In September 1923 the County of London Electricity Supply Company sought permission to lay electric mains on both sides of the new road and the first houses were completed by April 1924. There were few alterations to the approved designs – only on numbers 23 and 26, where there was a substantial change in level of nearly 2 metres, did the Surveyor report a request from the builder that ‘bricks being so scarce, they ask the Governors permission to build the lower end wall and a 10 feet length of the front and back walls, in concrete, up to a line 9” below the damp course’
Messrs. WL Cook & Co also bought Mr Room’s land behind the St Barnabas Church Hall and the whole development was completed late in 1925. Following this, the Estate took back the leases on The Hall and Fairfield and demolition followed shortly afterwards in March 1926. The demolition company, Stephen Dennis, secured the winning bid by offering the Governors £750 for the privilege of carrying out the contract as long as they were allowed to auction the demolished materials from the site.
Last but not least, in 1938, the western section of Elms Road that ran into Dulwich High Street, was renamed as part of Gilkes Crescent.